Interlude VI: Predators of the Desert
The natives of Ventrayna had a saying, “To wander the desert is to seek death.” Indeed if one listened long enough, they might hear the wails of those foolish mortals whose reckless disregard for this treacherous climate now echoed across an ocean of alluring red sand.
The most common predator Ventrayna’s desert had to offer was its merciless sandstorms. These roaming reapers snuck in on the unsuspecting traveler and whipped them off course or smothered their lungs beneath a howling tsunami of sand.
Even without these devilish sandstorms, foreigners were known to frequently lose their way, either through ignorance or the bewitching mirages painted by the desert sun. Sometimes their remains were discovered days or weeks later, their dehydrated corpses a testament of their unfortunate demise. But, more often than not, these ignorant trespassers were swallowed by the desert without a single trace. The sandpits of the Singing Plaines, for example, had lured more than one caravan to an early grave.
If the climate and perilous terrain weren’t enough to dissuade all outsiders from entering, then the wildlife of the desert was always eager to take a bite, from the swaying viper to the stinging scorpions and flesh-eating lizards the size of wild dogs. And then, of course—there were the witches.
These proud nomadic savages once ruled the desert as separate covens, warring, raiding, and dominating each other in turn. But now, the fire covens were unified under Kritanta’s Consort, Emperor Arius. Tamed, but still dangerous to anyone who did not have the Emperor’s protection.
And yet, neither size, fame, nor magic would prepare any wanderer for the most underestimated predator that lurked within this unforgiving terrain of sand and sun—the pellis sandworm.
Invisible to the human eye, the pellis worm burrows near the surface, choosing rocks and caverns to build their home, lest the wind carry them away. Each evening, as the sun descended and the night chill crept in, the sandworm burrowed deeper still—unless—it should happen to feel the spark of heat in the terrain above from an animal or human taking shelter from the wind.
Draw to the warmth of this ignorant and unsuspecting prey; the pellis worm would slither free and attach itself to the skin of man or beast, then inject a numbing poison and burrow beneath the skin of its doomed victim.
Once the pellis worm entered the host’s body, it quickly traveled to the brain, where it gnawed away at the victim’s mind slowing driving them towards insanity. The more worms that entered the victim’s body, the more violent and quick the host’s demise.
Despite its rather horrifying reputation, certain alchemists were known to collect this formidable creature. They would inflict shallow wounds on a small animal, such as a goat, and tie them to the rocks where pellis worms were rumored to thrive. After the animal’s death, usually accompanied by fits of madness, uncontrollable muscle spasms, and the vomiting of blood, the pellis worm, now much longer and more prominent in size after gorging themselves, could be harvested from the sacrificed animal’s brain.
This invasive predator was valued only as a heinous tool of torture, cruelty, and certain death. Yet, despite their ability to survive in the desert, the pellis worms were averse to extreme heat and cold. A pure-blood fire mage could purge the carnivorous fiends from their body by flooding the infected area or brain with witch fire. Born with a natural resistance to flame and heat, these pure-blood fire witches were the only victims known to be capable of surviving the ordeal, though the sandworms rarely left their host free of trauma.
It was as Arius witnessed the final death throes of his youngest consort, who had been subjected to such a fate, that he recalled the history of the desert’s most hated and feared predator. He had tried to purge the pellis worms from her body with his magic, but the consort was no pure-blood, merely a plaything Arius had taken to his bed since he no longer cared to share the Empress’s chambers.
Lady Sapphire, not much older than his daughter Aurelia, had been unable to endure the current of his pure-blood fire magic. She quickly fell into a coma, which at least spared her the worst of the pellis gorging. Once the consort breathed her last, Arius had her body and bed-chamber burned with witch fire to prevent further spread and suffering.
The Emperor left his volcanic palace to carry his consort’s ashes to a small oasis in the desert where he sprinkled her mortal remains around a small desert tree.
Lady Sapphire had just passed the fourth week of her first pregnancy.
The consort’s family would receive a handsome compensation, but then they had already been paid for such an event before Sapphire entered the Emperor’s chambers. Arius had buried over ten consorts, dozens of their stillborn offspring, and even six unfortunate children who outlived their mothers but never reached their fourth birthday.
The trees in this desert grove were a testament to the Emperor’s loss and the Empress’s unending cruelty.
Arius tapped the jar and watched the last traces of a woman’s smile vanish in the sweltering breeze. He would forget her in time as he did them all—everyone, except Catalina.
“Imperatoris Ingis,” General Zere greeted with a fist to the golden scorpion that adorned his chest plate armor as the Emperor turned from the shallow pool.
Arius’s amber eyes flicked past Zere to the Emperor’s escort of three hundred Ventrayna witches who always traveled at his side whenever he left the palace—just in case the Pope (or perhaps even the Empress) dared to take advantage of his grief.
The Emperor returned his gaze to his trusted general as he tossed the empty urn aside. “I want her dead, Zere.”
“I know, Imperatoris Ingis,” the veteran soldier murmured somberly.
“I want her eyes skewered and burned. I want her breasts hacked off, her tongue cut out, her skin boiled in acid, her intestines eaten by worms. I want every bone in her body broken and splintered while she is kept drugged and awake in agony. I want her begging me for death!”
“My Emperor,” Zere whispered hoarsely as he glanced towards the officers within hearing distance. “You know that cannot be. It would mean civil war—and the loss of everything you’ve built and sacrificed for.”
Arius let out a broken laugh and rubbed his fingers, calloused with a lifetime of fighting for survival and peace, down his closed eyes, cheeks, and his beard already trimmed in silver. “Fine—I’ll settle for an accident. I just want her dead.”
“Aurelia will blame you,” Zere replied firmly. “She is your only heir, my Emperor.”
Arius growled and stormed past the general towards his warhorse. “That bitch only knows how to resent and torment me—just like her mother.”
The stallion jumped as the Emperor grabbed its reins. Arius gazed up at the anxious beast and exhaled slowly through his teeth as he controlled the blaze that flickered behind his amber eyes. “Even if I am ultimately to blame—they each deserve some form of justice—” he glanced back once more at the grove of trees and the well of water they surrounded, then mounted and turned the black stallion back towards Ventrayna.
‘All this is Kritanta’s doing as much as Alexandria’s. Those who break an oath with a god rarely survived unscathed.’ Arius sighed as he reached for the already open bottle of Caligo wine that hung from his saddle. ‘So be it. If this will keep Catalina’s legacy safe—’
Arius’s amber eyes narrowed as a distant rumble raised the hairs along his neck and arm. His gaze snapped towards the clouds above the Dead Woods that darkened ominously. Like a fox catching a familiar scent, the Emperor scanned the brewing horizon as a nostalgic rush of exhilaration surged through his veins. Before the first flicker of hellfire broke through the clouds, Arius knew. The euphoria of Kritanta’s lost blessing tingled down his spine as the skies above Fogtooth Mountain bled fire.
“Imperatoris Ignis?” General Zere did not bother to hide his unease as he moved over beside the Emperor’s mount. “That is coming from Lafeara’s borders.”
‘So Kritanta has finally found another witch consort to favor?’
The anger of a jilted, forsaken lover did not suit his noble lineage, and yet Arius could not calm the fury that rode up from his grief and bitterness. “Round up the men. I would see what witch dares to defy my orders!”
Sharp whispers and eager shouts filled the air around him as three hundred fire witches, with a few wind and water witches mixed into their ranks, vaulted into formation behind the Emperor’s galloping stallion. All thoughts of his dead consort, his hated Empress, and even his numerous unborn children faded from Arius’s mind as he stared at the destructive firestorm that made the earth beneath the cavalry of witches tremble.
By the time the army reached the edge of the mountain, the deluge of hellfire had ended. Smoke obscured the mountain’s peaks and rolled down across the road that led to Deadwood Pass.
Arius reigned in sharply with a curse as the smoke before him cleared, and a pile of fallen rock obscured the pass ahead. “Clear a path and this infernal smoke. I can’t see anything.”
The witch army’s eagerness turned to harsh disappointment as they hurriedly dismounted and moved to their tasks. An air witch carefully blasted away the smoke and hovered up over the rockslide to scope the blockage. He quickly returned to kneel before the Emperor. “The entire pass has caved in, Imperatoris Ingis.”
“Imperatoris Ingis!” A captain called as he rushed over. “We found—dead soldiers beneath the rocks—Lafearian soldiers.”
A whisper of trepidation flowed down Arius’s neck like cold sweat as he turned towards the body his men laid upon the ground before him. The man was all but unrecognizable, his face shattered to a bloody pulp of broken bone, hair, and teeth. But the armor the dead man wore bore the sigil of a red wolf, a symbol Arius knew.
Arius Constantine, Emperor of Ventrayna, Bane of the Witch Hunter Order, Destroyer of the Holy Army, felt his blood run cold as he stared at the man’s bloody but fair skin.
‘These are Tristan’s forces—then he—’
“What treachery is this?” Zere growled as his gaze flew from the dead man’s uniform to Arius and then to the officer and his men. “Get a path cleared through and gather up every single body you find. If there are survivors, bring them back to Ventrayna—no, send a rider to bring a medic here as quickly as possible while they search!”
The witches scattered as Arius stepped around the dead soldier, his fists igniting in angry red flames as a tidal wave of anger that had slept beneath his bitterness and grief for nearly two decades burned past his growing fear. “General Zere, I want to be on the other side of these mountains in two hours.”
“According to our air witches, the collapse goes on for nearly two miles, Imperatoris Ingis. It will take time to clear,” the General explained cautiously.
Arius narrowed his eyes at the pass and sniffed the breeze. “Tharyians?”
“Deadwood Pass does lead into their territory,” Zere confirmed. “It looks like the Red Wolf Army got turned around and tried to flee to safety here when—they were ambushed.”
“So,” Arius’s clenched jaw popped as his lips slid into a dangerous smile, “the rabid badger finally decides to crawl out of her hole—and dares to touch Catalina’s son!”
Twin red fiery serpents snapped their jaws eagerly as they coiled up the Emperor’s arm and hissed into his ears.
“Altius—” Zere dropped down to his knees. “My Emperor—the fastest way over these mountains—only the air witches can surmount it quickly.”
Arius reigned in his serpents with an acknowledging nod. “Then they will carry us over, General. I need to see what—no, who is on the other side.”
Fear and respect. Those were the qualities Arius clung to after Kritanta stripped him of her blessing. Even without the Goddess’s bottomless source of intoxicating power, every witch, young and old, knew the Emperor’s name and the legend branded upon it.
Arius the Pope slayer, Arius the Dragon, and Arius the Witch Emperor.
By whatever title they chose to call him, all witches feared or revered their Emperor. While some resistant covens viewed him as a Tyrant, thousands more flocked to his borders, eager to pledge their loyalty and aid to his continued crusade against the Holy Church’s last stronghold and the sickly Pope Jericho.
‘Yet what an irony it would be if I were to fall to my death now?’ Arius thought as he glanced down through the billowing smoke towards his rapidly disappearing troops. Two air witches supported the harness strapped around the Emperor’s torso, the pair doing their best to provide a smooth fight up through the congested smog towards Fogtooth’s crown.
The thinning polluted air whipped against Arius’s face and stung his blinking eyes. He did not comment when General Zere, carried in his own harness, flew past the Emperor to cross the mountain peak first. Zere was always on alert to potential dangers and threats against his Emperor. Given the display of power they had both just witnessed and Kritanta’s likely involvement, the General’s over-cautious nature was to be expected. The scent of the goddess’s potent magic lingered heavily upon the ashen breeze as smoke furled and churned in an endless dance of chaos and calamity.
Just as Arius lost all trace of his general’s presence, a blast of wind greeted the Emperor and his escort. Behind blinking eyes, Arius stared down at the fog-like smoke that cleared to reveal a blackened mountainside, a burning, shattered forest, and what looked to be three armies scattered and scorched along the broken ground of what had once been Wolfthorn Forest.
“I-Imperatoris—” the air witch at his right stammered as they slowed his descent.
Arius’s amber eyes scanned through the lingering smoke and fire until he found Zere further to the west, descending towards a burning lake. “Take me to the General,” he ordered
Zere waited for him on the dry, brittle ground that blossomed with flickering flames. The men exchanged looks before Arius waved the air witches back to the sky, where they could avoid the otherwise toxic fumes and keep a lookout.
“I have yet to find a single survivor,” Zere whispered anxiously as they walked calmly through the charred, broken earth. “I can sense another witch up ahead, but this destructive force—is it—”
“Kritanta’s presence,” Arius answered grimly. “We should be cautious. A fresh Consort is rarely in full control of their new powers.”
“Then perhaps I—”
“I would see the bastard’s face,” Arius interrupted as he foraged ahead.
The fumes of Kritanta’s magic intensified as they neared the burning lake in the forest’s center. Through the dancing demonic black flames, Arius could make out a figure kneeling upon the lake, but whether man or woman, god or mortal, he could not tell.
“Imperatoris Ingis—I cannot—” Zere gasped as he clutched his chest. “Forgive me.”
“Even a pure-blood like you is not immune to Kritanta’s destructive flame,” Arius replied with an understanding grunt.
“However, it would seem I still have some built-up resistance to it,” Arius interrupted as he waved a hand through the blackened flames and drew it out unharmed. “Withdraw and wait for me. The air witches can keep watch above.”
“I have no intention of dying and leaving my throne to Alexandria or her brat,” Arius stated grimly and turned to face his old friend with a commanding gaze. “Withdraw and await my return, General.”
“Imperatoris Ingis,” the General answered with a humble bow but a worried expression.
Kritanta’s new consort waited for Arius in the center of the burning lake. The young man’s clothes were burned away. His skin glistened in sweat and black soot that fell from the sky above him. But it was the burning handprint that glowed against the witch’s chest that drew Arius’s gaze. A ripple of pain, regret, and revulsion filled the Witch Emperor as he fought the urge to touch the matching scar beneath his armor from a similar baptism with the Goddess of Death.
“Kritanta,” he whispered her name and hated the longing that echoed through his voice.
Surprise, joy, and despair sent Arius spinning towards the specter that walked through the lake of black fire towards him. “Catalina!?”
The Phoenix of Karmine burned like the sun, but her cheeks were damp with angry tears. “You swore you would protect him from her!” The burning pools of Catalina’s black eyes condemned him even as her fingers scorched his cheek. “What kind of Emperor are you? You can’t even protect our son!”
“Cat,” Arius reached for her wrist, but Catalina vanished like a desert mirage before his eyes, and the Emperor reeled back as Kritanta’s devilish grin greeted him from the pillar of smoke that remained.
“I warned you before, Arius,” the Goddess of Death whispered with a low chuckle. “You cannot outwit a god.”
Her dry, withered voice filled his ears like the drum of the dead, and cold understanding wrapped around Arius’s heart and constricted.
“The Goddess of Destruction always collects her debts.” She hissed the last word, like the venomous serpent that she was, and smiled at Arius’s dawning despair before she turned towards the young witch, whose body rose from the burning lake on a bed of blackened coals. “My new consort pleases me.” She turned back to the Emperor and flicked a long gray nail in his direction. “So I shall forgive your futile deception.”
The spark of her magic erupted inside the Emperor’s chest and brought Arius to his knees as Kritanta’s corrosive powers flowed through him once again.
“It is not as much as before, but then you are not worthy of more,” Kritanta murmured maliciously. “Now take your son home, Arius. Nurse him back to health and keep your silence. If you are obedient this time, I shall allow you to watch Tristan’s glorious future as my new dragon.”
“Dra—” Arius choked on the word.
Kritanta laughed. An earsplitting peal of vile and mirth that silenced the raging fire around them. A piece of ash-like skin cracked and fell away from Kritanta’s chin to reveal a glowing glimpse of the goddess’s former self. “The bloodline of the Phoenix was always the most enduring. I should thank you, Arius. Without your insatiable greed and lust, I might have missed out on the perfect candidate for my rebirth.”
Arius raised his gaze to the burning coals of Kritanta’s eyes and shuddered. “But Tristan—is not my firstborn—I promised you—my firstborn.”
“Yes, you jilted the phoenix and married that viper to avoid giving me Catalina’s child,” Kritanta almost purred as she returned to caress his cheek. “Oh, you gullible, foolish, stupid mortal. What makes you think that Aurelia is your firstborn?” Her black lips spread in a death-like smile as she watched him flounder beneath her burning gaze. “You tried to play the game and lost. I can see every secret that burns inside your mortal shell. Tell me, Arius, how does it feel to know your betrayal only led Catalina to her doom while I still obtained your precious first-born son. No—” Her fangs stretched in a murderous smile of celebration, “—Tristan is your only son, isn’t he?”
“Bitch!” The word barely whispered past Arius’s lips when Kritanta’s magic flooded his throat and lungs. Once, such a purge had brought the Emperor pleasure and power beyond imagination, but now the goddess’s magic seemed determined to burn his organs and shatter his very bones. Arius’s strangled scream echoed around the burning plain long after he fell to his side, spasming in pain, while Kritanta reigned in her magic.
“Do not—push me further, Arius. I may have favored you once—but I am intimately familiar with deception and betrayal. I can and will keep you alive long enough to taste the deepest pits of hell should you ever betray me again.”
Arius coughed up dried blood and wheezed, unable to reply.
“Now—” Kritanta exhaled and turned a predatory smile towards Tristan’s unconscious body “—my Consort will wake soon. Take him to my temple, Arius. The High Priest will ease his recovery. I will return for him—at my pleasure.”